Arthur Alexander: No Direction Home

The Beatles, Stones and Dylan covered his songs. As a singer he was rated alongside Otis and Orbison. So whatever happened to Arthur Alexander?

ROOM 213 WAS not where Arthur Alexander had planned to spend the rest of his days.

Here, in the Hough Parent-Child Center in Cleveland, Ohio, in a cubbyhole of an office cordoned off with bookcases, the legendary singer-songwriter who’d been revered by the biggest acts in the business came to sit and write lyrics between custodial and bus-driving duties. Sometimes this six-foot-four giant of a man must have let his thoughts carry him back to earlier days. Perhaps he remembered Nashville. There, in RCA’s Studio B, Arthur recorded ’60s hits like ‘Anna’, ‘Where Have You Been?’ and ‘Everyday I Have To Cry’. But Arthur’s co-workers at the Hough never knew of his earlier career in music. Not until his comeback, shortly before his death in 1993, did they learn that years ago he had been a singer, a soul man, a star. Even more than that, he inspired the sound that swept the world. “If The Beatles ever wanted a sound, it was R&B,” Paul McCartney recalled; “that was what we listened to, what we wanted to be like — Arthur Alexander.”

ARTHUR ALEXANDER Jr. — ‘June’ as he was known to his friends — was born on May 10, 1940 in the northern Alabama town of Florence on the banks of the Tennessee River in the area known as Muscle Shoals. Arthur’s father was a stern but loving man who worked construction and played blues guitar in local clubs. After the death of the boy’s mother in 1944, his father gave up the guitar, remarried and moved the family across the river to Sheffield, where he tried to discourage his son’s interest in music. “I’d ask him about his blues guitar playing,” Arthur recalled in 1993, “and one day he finally said, ‘I played blues and sang blues all my life and I never made a nickel. So I don’t want you to go nowhere near that’.”

Arthur never did learn the guitar, or any instrument for that matter. But he loved to sing, earning recognition as a soloist in school and in church choirs. At age 14 he joined The Heartstrings, a short-lived a cappella quartet that sang the hits of Bobby ‘Blue’ Bland, Jerry Butler, and The Dominoes. But it was the country music he heard on the radio that most influenced Arthur’s nascent singing and songwriting style: “Rex Allen, Gene Autry, Eddy Arnold — I loved stuff like that.”

Just as Arthur started writing songs proper, he met Tom Stafford, manager of Florence’s Princess movie theatre and part-owner of the publishing company later renamed Fame (Florence Alabama Music Enterprises). With Rick Hall and Billy Sherrill, a hot-shot player with local band The Fairlanes, Stafford was mentor to a spirited group of young songwriters and musicians that included Donnie Fritts, Dan Penn and Spooner Oldham. Hanging out in his tiny recording studio on Tennessee Street, the group talked about writing songs and making records. Arthur Alexander wanted in.

During countless jam sessions — sometimes fuelled by the pep pills Stafford pilfered from his parents’ downstairs drugstore — the boys swapped song ideas and inspiration. Despite the town’s colour line, all that mattered here was music. “We were trying to bridge the gap,” said Arthur, who forged a strong bond with Fritts, a young white songwriter from Florence. “We wanted it all — the country, the R&B, the pop. ‘Cos we had one thing in common — we all liked all types of music.” Unable to play an instrument, Arthur would sing his song ideas to Fritts or Spooner Oldham or David Briggs, who would work them out on the piano. “As far as I was concerned, they were already written,” says Oldham. “If I’m writing a song in collaboration,” said Arthur, “they hit a chord or a note and something will just ring a bell in my mind, and it will swing out into a melody.”

“Arthur was just a real nice, gentle guy,” recalls Fritts. “He would bring his friends and we’d go up and play cards and hang out. It was the first time I’d been that close to a black guy, but it was very natural. On the road, though, things were different. When Arthur and Tom and me went down to Birmingham [Alabama], Arthur wouldn’t get out of the car to use the bathroom. He’d say, ‘I’ll go when I get back to Florence’.”

Before long, the Fame partnership split up. While Rick Hall remained in Muscle Shoals, building Fame into a Mecca for Southern soul, Billy Sherrill headed for Nashville, eventually becoming one of country music’s leading producers. In 1959 Stafford published the song ‘She Wanna Rock’. Co-written by Arthur and his old Heartstrings spar Henry Lee Bennett, it was cut by Arkansas singer Arnie Derkson on Decca. Sparked by his first cover, Arthur and guitarist ‘Peanut’ Montgomery took one of Stafford’s lyrics, nicked a riff from Brook Benton’s hit ‘Kiddio’ and came up with ‘Sally Sue Brown’, a bluesy number they recorded on Stafford’s Berlant-Concertone one-track recorder. While members of The Fairlanes and Dan Penn’s Pallbearers put down the beat, pianist Hargus ‘Pig’ Robbins added boogie-woogie licks as Arthur rocked and wailed over the swampy mix. ‘June’ Alexander’s debut single, ‘Sally Sue Brown’, was released on Judd Records in 1960. It smoked up the local airwaves and then fizzled out.

DEJECTED BUT not discouraged, Arthur persevered. Within a year he’d written the song that put Muscle Shoals on the musical map. In 1960, he met Elizabeth Ann Barton. “I was visiting my cousin and we’d gone out to the grocery store,” she recalls. “Arthur was coming out and my cousin introduced us. He started coming over to my cousin’s house every day. I always knew when he was coming ‘cos I’d hear him singing and whistling ‘Misty’! We got married some months later.”

‘You Better Move On’ was a tune that Arthur wrote in his head while working as a bell-hop at the Muscle Shoals Hotel. It was to be his first hit hymning the love of his life, better known as Anna. “She grew up with this guy and they had been sweethearts all through grade school,” Arthur recalled. “When I met her out of high school, he was still hanging in there. His family was pretty well off. I didn’t have no money, but I knew she liked me. It was a small town and people would be talking. They’d tell him, ‘June is taking your woman’, and shit like that. That’s where I got the idea for the song. I didn’t talk to him personally; I said it in a song.”

Everyone who heard him snap his fingers and sing the song was convinced it was a hit, including fledgling producer Rick Hall. In the summer of 1961, Hall rented an abandoned tobacco warehouse and built the first Fame recording studio. After several weeks of painstaking sessions, ‘You Better Move On’ was recorded. Alexander’s moody vocal, framed by Norbert Putnam’s supple bass, Jerry Carrigan’s crisply insistent hi-hat against Terry Thompson’s clipped electric guitar and Forrest Riley’s strummed acoustic, contained the embryo of what came to be known as the Muscle Shoals sound. Now all they needed was a label. “We played it for some people,” said Arthur. “They said, ‘We like it, but that singer’s all over the place’.”

Seven Nashville A&R men turned the song down flat, some saying it sounded “too black”, but Dot Records took a chance, and by March 1962 the record had shot to Number 24 on the charts. (Three years later, The Rolling Stones covered it.) But Billboard gave higher praise to the single’s flip-side, Terry Thompson’s ‘A Shot Of Rhythm And Blues’, calling it a “spirited dance side that could appeal to the teens”. Available to English rockers through London Records — busy putting out any American disc that even minutely scratched the US charts — it quickly became a beat group standard.

Things would never be the same. Hall received around $10,000 for his two per cent share of the record, using that capital to build his larger Fame studio. Almost everyone on the record (barring Thompson, who died in 1965) went on to successful careers in music. And Arthur Alexander was no longer a bell-hop — he was a star.

THERE WAS only one problem, and that was Noel Ball, to whom Tom Stafford had sold Arthur’s management contract, allegedly for a case of codeine. “Twenty minutes after I met Noel, I said, ‘Fuck you, I don’t want to work with you’,” recalled Arthur. “But Tom wanted to do it, so I went ahead.” An insipid album of covers and remakes followed, par for the course back then — “the shittiest session I ever did,” Arthur later lamented.

Alexander’s Dot material was cut in RCA’s Studio B with a cadre of talented Nashville Cats, including saxman Boots Randolph, drummer Kenny Buttrey and the multi-talented Charlie McCoy. (McCoy and Buttrey would make Music City history as Bob Dylan’s back-up band on Blonde On Blonde, John Wesley Harding and Nashville Skyline. In 1988, Dylan completed the cosmic link by recording ‘Sally Sue Brown’ on his Shot Of Love LP) “Arthur was a guy that I thought was something special from the first time I heard him,” says McCoy. “He fed off the fact that everybody in the room was diggin’ him.”

Alexander’s next single was a pair of finely-crafted hit songs: ‘Where Have You Been?’, by New York’s Brill Building team Mann & Weil, and ‘Soldier Of Love’, by Nashville tunesmiths Cason & Moon. Although light years from the earthiness of ‘You Better Move On’, the fully-orchestrated productions and Alexander’s outstanding vocal performances sent the disc midway up the Top 40 and across the Atlantic, where it captured the attention of a Liverpool quartet called The Beatles. By year’s end, that band had added both songs plus ‘A Shot Of Rhythm And Blues’ to their set-list.

Thanks to The Beatles’ 1963 rendition — “Damn, The Beatles singing me”, he exclaimed when he first heard it while playing pool — ‘Anna’ is Arthur’s best-known composition. “I was trying to get a fix on how I felt really about love in general. There had been no other girl meant as much to me as she did. That line, ‘All of my life I’ve been searching for a girl’ is true. I was real young and naive, and when I got to that part, that thrilled me so much.” Arthur recalled the marriage that failed. “She never said to me she wanted to go with another guy; but I could tell. You can tell from the wav the relationship was going, because in my mind she wanted to be free. I had given her rings and stuff. She never gave ’em back, even though we separated.”

Arthur was now dividing his time between Nashville and Sheffield, driving down in his new Lincoln Town Car and enjoying his status as a star. Sporting a high process hairdo and tight-fitting stage clothes, he performed at frat houses, proms and local clubs like The Ebony and Jack’s Chicken Shack. Though he didn’t move around much, and sometimes seemed ill at ease onstage, his intense, brooding voice could still the noisiest room. “He was on the cutting-edge and he kind of knew it,” says Calvin Lewis, a local bassist and co-writer of ‘When A Man Loves A Woman’.

Arthur developed a reputation as a ladies’ man, touring with Jackie Wilson, Etta James and Otis Redding. He formed a close friendship with Redding and co-wrote the song ‘Johnny Heartbreak’. “Arthur was a very striking, handsome and big guy, as was Otis,” notes Phil Walden, Redding’s manager. “Neither one was intimidated by the other.”

But Alexander’s world was beginning to unravel. As his penchant for amphetamines escalated, his career went into a free fall. By 1963 his marriage to Ann had splintered, leaving two sons and creating, by some accounts, a lifetime of regret. “Arthur was on the road, touring quite a bit,” says Ann. “He didn’t come home and I didn’t even know where he was. He didn’t send money, and that wasn’t like him. He changed dramatically.”

Under Ball’s direction the choice of material stayed firmly in the middle-of-the-road, and Dot seemed incapable of marketing Arthur effectively. “I had worked to get Arthur released from Dot to sign with Atlantic,” says Phil Walden. “Jerry [Wexler] was convinced of his great talent, but Dot wouldn’t release him. He was just sort of held in limbo.”

By the middle of the decade, three more singles were released, including Alexander’s classic ‘Go Home Girl’ plus atmospheric covers of ‘Black Night’ and ‘Detroit City’. None of them caught on. While impossible to verify allegations of stolen copyrights and missing funds, it was obvious to Alexander’s friends that he was not receiving the royalties due someone with covers by The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Dusty Springfield and numerous others. Released just last year, the tribute album Adios Amigo corrals a stellar line-up of admirers — Elvis Costello, Roger McGuinn, Robert Plant, Graham Parker, John Prine and Nick Lowe, not forgetting Arthur’s old friends Penn and Fritts. “Growing up in England in the ’60s, Arthur was one of those names that popped up on the credits of the English bands that were leaning into American music,” says Graham Parker, who covered ‘Every Day I Have To Cry’. In ‘Every Day’ he writes about this girl who won’t marry him because he doesn’t have any money. Does anyone write songs like that any more?”

Meanwhile, unbeknownst to Arthur, Ball was dying of cancer. “Noel started to lose weight and he wasn’t himself,” says Dot artist Dale Ward. “We didn’t know he was dying. Then they sold us as a package to Monument Records.”

Monument should have been the musical lifeline Arthur needed. Owner/producer Fred Foster, who had guided Roy Orbison to stardom, respected and understood the singer’s untapped abilities. “When I started Monument,” says Foster, “I was determined not to sign anybody unless they were unique enough to be recognisable in the first eight bars. I thought Arthur was unique and had a great career ahead of him.” Alexander’s Monument debut was ‘(Baby) For You’. No strings, no schmaltz. No hit, either, though the new disc did give him the opportunity to take his act overseas.

On March 28, 1966, Arthur arrived in London for a three-week tour of Britain. Backed by a group of local musicians, he performed at The Flamingo, The Marquee and The Scotch of St James, where the stage was so small the towering singer had to stand among the dancers to sing. He appeared on Ready Steady Go!, received a lukewarm review from Melody Maker (“professional but unmemorable”), and went with Steve Winwood to a Moody Blues show. Too little too late, perhaps, but for Arthur the tour remained one of the high points of his life.

For all Foster’s good intentions, not one of Arthur’s Monument sides charted. “I’m still mystified as to why we didn’t get at least one hit out of the bunch,” says Foster, his dismay still apparent. “It stopped dead in its tracks.”

ON FEBRUARY 20, 1967, while on tour in Arcadia, Florida, Arthur was found by police wandering outside his motel. According to doctors he was experiencing “hallucinations and delusions,” possibly as a result of the amphetamine he’d used throughout his career. He was jailed, hospitalised and later sent back to Alabama, where he spent almost four months at the Bryce Hospital.

Over the next four years, Arthur suffered several breakdowns, probably accelerated by constant drug and alcohol intake. Despite the chart-storming success of fellow soul men like Redding, Percy Sledge and Wilson Pickett, his own efforts bombed. It was Arthur Alexander’s Black Night.

“He’d go on binges, and when he came back from shows he was the worst,” remembers a long-time Nashville girlfriend. “Arthur was a hard person to know. He was a loner. He had a couple of guys that he’d associate with, but for the most part he liked to be by himself. At times he didn’t even have a home. He was in and out of everybody’s life.”

Still alternating between Nashville and Sheffield, where he ran an after-hours club out of his home, Arthur continued to tour sporadically and to record for Monument. He was also signed as a staff writer to Combine Music, a cutting-edge Nashville publishing house whose stable included Kris Kristofferson, Billy Swan and his old pal Donnie Fritts. For the first time in years, the two old buddies had a chance to write together. “In ‘Baby Can’t You Wait’, Arthur wrote this line ‘All the time I was confined’ which just knocked me out,” says Fritts, recalling Alexander’s ability, even in his most troubled times, to draw from personal experiences.

In 1972 he cut a self-titled album for Warner Brothers. Arthur later attributed the deal to a plea-bargain stemming from a 1970 pot bust: “I had to have something to show I was going to be responsible and working at making some money.” The album itself is a lost country-soul classic, highlights being ‘Come Along With Me’, ‘In The Middle Of It All’ and ‘Rainbow Road’, the moving ballad written by Dan Penn and Donnie Fritts based loosely on Alexander’s tribulations and Little Willie John’s actual murder rap.

Sadly, the album never found an audience. After two more Warner Brothers singles, Arthur returned to Sheffield. “In those days his music was something you didn’t bring up,” says Glenda Robinson, a close friend. “It just depressed him.”

Three years later Arthur wandered into Music Mill Studios in Muscle Shoals and struck up a conversation with producers George Soule and Al Cartee. Within a week he was back in the studio recording ‘Everyday I Have To Cry’. Cut in a pre-disco groove, replete with congas and strings, the record was released on Buddah and quickly climbed to Number 45. For a follow-up, Arthur cut a steamy ballad, ‘Sharing The Night Together’. “It was the type of record where you only had to put it on the radio and get out of the way,” says Wade Conklin, PR man for Buddah at the time. “It was Number 1 for 11 weeks on Nashville’s WVOL. Women were going crazy.” Nationally, however, Alexander’s superb version butted heads with one by Lennie LeBlanc, another Music Mill artist. Both tumbled off the charts. This disappointment marked the start of another protracted barren period which Arthur survived by repeatedly requesting advances from his long-suffering publishers.

In 1978, after negotiations for an album fell through, Arthur recorded ‘Hound Dog Man’s Gone Home’, a pseudo-gospel tribute to Elvis on Music Mill. Then he called it quits, and set down roots in Ohio. Unable to shake the gloom of his fallen career, he stayed at home for the next few years, finding solace in his Bible. “He was lost,” says Glenda Robinson. For a while he sat in on local gigs, “but it felt too much like work”. In order to support his family he worked as a tow-truck operator maintenance man, and in 1981 began working as a bus driver for the Hough Parent-Child Center, escorting mothers and their children to and from the facility.

ONE DAY IN 1983, Ben Saxon from The Alabama Record Collectors Association called to invite Arthur to perform at their AGM. Astonished that anyone even remembered him, Arthur flew down to Birmingham and delivered a splendid set, receiving for his efforts a small gold plaque. Meeting fans after the show, Arthur was asked to sign an LP of his material that he had never seen before: A Shot Of Rhythm And Soul, the first of three albums on Britain’s Ace label.

Back in Cleveland, he devoted his efforts to The Hough Center. “Arthur was the kind of guy you could go to with a problem and he’d help you to solve it,” says co-worker Jerry Elders. “He was there for everybody and everybody just loved him. He had a happy-go-lucky smile at all times. But he was also a real private person — he had a certain seclusion about him.”

Taking weekend Bible classes and entertaining his grandchildren at backyard barbecues, Arthur seemed happy away from the business. But not everyone was convinced. “He was putting up a front,” says Glenda Robinson. “He dreamed about getting back to his music.” When Barney Hoskyns interviewed him in October 1985, Arthur admitted: “When I’m ready, I’m gonna go in and produce something on myself. There are people in New York who would be interested.”

In the summer of 1990, Arthur got a call from Rick Hall: “June, it’s really you? I thought you were dead.” Hall invited Arthur to perform at the Hall Of Fame’s grand opening ceremonies in August and to see his Walk Of Fame star, paid for by Hall. “I guess that’s what got the wheels turning again,” said Arthur. “It flowed. And it made me feel good.”

But any euphoria was dashed when Alexander’s eldest son, Arthur Bernard, died during a badly mishandled drug deal. Though this was devastating to Arthur, it may be that the need to overcome his son’s death gave him the courage to give music one more try. He accepted an offer to go back to making records. In September 1991 he performed two triumphant sets at New York’s Bottom Line club on a songwriter’s showcase. Overwhelmed by the outpouring of love from the packed house and relaxed in the low-key acoustic setting, Arthur shone.

By January 1992, Arthur was signed to an album deal with Elektra/Nonesuch. Produced by Ben Vaughn in Nashville with Alexander’s old music buddies, Lonely Just Like Me was released in April 1993 to an avalanche of acclaim. For Arthur, the album was a Godsend, enabling him to record ‘I Believe In Miracles’, the pop/gospel song he had written with pianist Thomas Cain. “I felt this was God telling me that he wanted me to sing this song,” Arthur said. “Because I didn’t pursue a record contract, all of this just fell into place.”

“When he made his comeback,” says Glenda Robinson, “he said to me, ‘This is my time. God has given me a second chance’. He said this is what he had prayed for.” Following preliminary gigs in Texas and Washington DC, Arthur was geared up for a summer of glory.

ON MONDAY June 7, the day after his superb performance at The Nashville Summer Lights Festival, Arthur arrived at Bug Music Publishing to begin sorting out his tangled copyright affairs. Due to the 28-year-old life of US copyrights, he was able to retrieve some of the songs he had lost years before.

During the meeting, Arthur appeared overheated and uncomfortable. Although Bug executive Gary Valletri offered to postpone the meeting, the songwriter was adamant about completing their business. With the air conditioner blasting and Arthur sweating profusely, Valletri came to the day’s final piece of business, ‘You Better Move On’. But Arthur had passed out. Paramedics were summoned and he was rushed to Nashville’s Baptist Memorial Hospital.

For two days Arthur hung on, giving the clenched fist “Right on!” sign to visitors. Early in the morning of June 9, shortly after his family arrived from Cleveland, he died of heart failure aged 53. That Sunday, the Thompson Funeral Home in Florence was filled to capacity. As mourners filed into the chapel, Thomas Cain and Dan Penn played ‘I Believe In Miracles’, the song of devotion Arthur had hummed behind the wheel of his bus and written up in Room 213. 

The pick or Arthur Alexander on CD

‘Sally Sue Brown’ (single: Judd 1960) Reissued on Ace’s A Shot Of Rhythm And Soul, re-recorded for Lonely Just Like Me on Elektra/Nonesuch.
Reverb-drenched, the 20-year-old ‘June’ goes for his first hit. “Let me love you, baby/Please don’t put me down,” goes the line Alexander tagged onto Tom Stafford’s unfinished lyric, summing up everything he was about.

‘Anna’ (single: Dot 1962) Available on The Greatest CD on Ace.
By 1962, Alexander had hit his stride with a song that bridged pop and soul. ‘Moondog’ Lennon might have genuflected to this one.

‘Where Have You Been?’ (single: Dot 1962) available on The Greatest.
The blend of wonder, joy, and sadness makes Alexander’s performance ofBarry Mann & Cynthia Weil’s pop gem possibly his greatest recording.

‘In The Middle Of It All’ (unreleased Dot recording) Available on The Greatest.
This version might make you glad you didn’t live through the song’s heartbreak.

‘Go Home Girl’ (single 1963) Available on The Greatest.
An Arthur Alexander original, his 1993 rendition pairs off loyalty and lust with the hindsight of middle age: “The love of a girl and the love of a friend are two things you can’t compare.”

‘I Believe In Miracles’ (from Lonely Just Like Me 1993).
Alexander truly sounds at peace on this personal gospel tune co-written with piano soulmate Thomas Cain.

‘If It’s Really Got To Be This Way’ (from Lonely Just Like Me 1993).
Co-written with Donnie Fritts and Gary Nichols, the hallmarks of his lyrics — love, loss, forgiveness — are all here, along with a transcendent middle eight.

‘You Better Move On’ (Dot single 1962) Available on The Muscle Shoals Sound on Rhino.
“I think you better go now, I’m getting mighty mad/You asked me to give up the only love I’ve ever had”: is there a more ominous lyric in all music?

2013 author’s note: After a few years of research, with the hopes of writing a full biography of Alexander, I penned this piece for MOJO. It was only when I finished this piece did I fully believe I could tell Arthur’s long, complicated and elusive story. I had to: Peter Guralnick was eager to see it in print, and I knew I could never face myself if I let down one of true literary heroes. (Get A Shot of Rhythm & Blues: The Arthur Alexander Story University of Alabama Press, 2000.)

© Richard YoungerMOJO, December 1995

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